On Memorial Day weekend in 2022, Kate Arnold and her wife, Caroline Flint, flew from Oklahoma City to Cabo San Lucas for a little R&R. They had five kids, the youngest of them five-year-old twin girls, and demanding jobs as obstetrician-gynecologists. The stresses of all this were mounting. That they were a gay married couple living in a red, socially conservative state was the least of it. Caroline was born in Tulsa, spent much of her childhood in Oklahoma, and was educated at the University of Oklahoma. She cast her first presidential vote for George W. Bush. Kate, the more political of the two, was from Northern California and a lifelong Democrat. But her mother was born in Oklahoma City, and she felt at home there; she’d even given some thought to running for the state legislature.
Kate and Caroline flew down with the twins and their 16-year-old daughter. It says a lot about Kate Arnold that she adopted the three older children while she was attending medical school; the birth mother, whom Kate befriended while volunteering at a home for teenage mothers, was an addict who lost custody.
Arriving in Cabo, Kate and Caroline realized that it had been a very long time—too long— since their last date night. So one evening they ordered the kids room service and went off by themselves to a Taco Night theme dinner. “We sat outside with the little colored flags,” Kate recalled, “and they gave us blankets because it was cold and windy. We hadn’t been sitting for very long when I started saying I wasn’t happy.”
A little more than one week earlier, a disturbed high school student named Salvador Ramos had entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, with an AR-15 rifle and killed 19 children and two adults, injuring 17 more. It was the deadliest school shooting since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, and it happened just one state over as Kate and Caroline’s two youngest were about to start school. Two more mass shootings occurred in Oklahoma while they were in Cabo. A man named Michael Louis gunned down, with an AR-15, two doctors, a receptionist, and a patient at the Tulsa offices of his orthopedic surgeon because he was angry that his recent back surgery left him in pain. Then a man named Skyler Buckner killed one person and injured seven others at a Memorial Day festival in Taft, Oklahoma. States with permissive gun laws have a higher rate of mass shootings, and Oklahoma, with some of the most permissive gun laws in the country, has 45 percent more gun deaths per capita than the national average—higher even than in Texas.
That was one reason Kate wasn’t happy.
Another reason was that the state legislature was trying to limit access to contraceptives. In March, the state Senate had voted to require parental consent before a minor could take contraceptives. Kate was chair of the Oklahoma chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and she’d lobbied against this change. (The bill later died in the state House of Representatives.)
“You’re just gonna get my nine-year-old birth control without my knowledge?” one state legislator said to her.
“How does your nine-year-old need birth control?” Kate answered. “And yes, if she needs birth control … what’s worse than her coming home pregnant?”
Caroline had reasons to be unhappy, too. One year earlier, Oklahoma’s governor had signed a law barring public schools and charter schools from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” School boards interpreted this as an invitation to ban any book that touched on race or gender. Among the books targeted in Oklahoma, according to the free-speech organization PEN America, were Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, A Raisin in the Sun, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. “Books are my thing,” Caroline told me. She couldn’t abide the idea that “books would be censored.”
Also, Caroline’s hospital wouldn’t let her perform gender-affirming surgery. The procedure was legal in Oklahoma, but this was a Baptist hospital, and fairly conservative. “I would do surgeries,” Caroline said, “like hysterectomies for patients who are transitioning. And I’d have to have another indication to do it.… I’d have to say, ‘Oh, they also have pain,’” or find some other reason.
Kate was director of women’s health at a large, federally funded nonprofit health center serving low-income patients. It was, she told me, “A job that I loved.” But five months before their Cabo dinner, Kate published an op-ed at a nonprofit Oklahoma news site criticizing state felony prosecutions of women who miscarried after taking drugs during pregnancy. “Anytime you criminalize drug use in pregnancy,” Kate explained to me, the addicts stop going to the hospital, “and you have worse and worse outcomes.”
After the op-ed appeared, somebody phoned Kate’s health center to complain. After that, Kate’s superiors effectively barred her from making public statements about anything. That irked Kate until her boss explained why: The FBI had contacted the health center to alert them to threats of violence “just for providing birth control.” Did I mention that Oklahoma allows anybody over the age of 21 to carry a loaded firearm in public, open or concealed, without a license?
The last straw for the couple was Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That windy June night in Cabo, the Supreme Court was still a few weeks away from overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing states to ban abortion. But it was no mystery what the decision would say, because one month earlier a draft had leaked to Politico. The Oklahoma legislature had already passed several trigger laws whose cumulative effect was to bar doctors from performing abortions starting at the point of conception, punishable by up to 10 years in prison (later reduced to five).
Kate and Caroline didn’t perform abortions themselves; they referred patients to Planned Parenthood. Or rather, they had done so until an Oklahoma law barred them from doing even that. That law would later be ruled unconstitutional, but ambiguities in the Oklahoma abortion ban’s exception for protecting the life of the mother make it potentially dangerous to treat any patient experiencing difficulty during pregnancy.
“When we left dinner that night,” Kate recalled, “we knew we needed to leave Oklahoma. We were both in a bit of shock as we walked back to our room. I said I was sorry, and that I didn’t know I had been thinking all of that till we finally had a minute. Caroline jokingly called me the worst date ever.”
For a day, they thought about moving to New Zealand, but they didn’t want to be that far from their parents, and besides, Kate and Caroline love this country, despite all its flaws; July Fourth is Kate’s favorite holiday. They thought about Northern California, but vetoed that because Caroline doesn’t like cold summer nights. That left Washington, D.C., a place Kate had enjoyed living in while attending medical school at Georgetown. They arrived this past May, settling into a blue bungalow on a quiet, leafy street near the Maryland border.
Kate Arnold and Caroline Flint are two bright, energetic, professionally trained, and public-spirited women whom Washington is happy to welcome—they both quickly found jobs—even though it doesn’t particularly need them. The places that need Kate and Caroline are Oklahoma and Mississippi and Idaho and various other conservative states where similar stories are playing out daily. These two fortyish doctors have joined an out-migration of young professionals—accelerated by the culture wars of recent years and pushed to warp speed by Dobbs—that’s known as the Red State Brain Drain.
Republican-dominated states are pushing out young professionals by enacting extremist conservative policies. Abortion restrictions are the most sweeping example, but state laws restricting everything from academic tenure to transgender health care to the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race are making these states uncongenial to knowledge workers.
The precise effect of all this on the brain drain is hard to tease out from migration statistics because the Dobbs decision is still fairly new, and because red states were bleeding college graduates even before the culture war heated up. The only red state that brings in more college graduates than it sends elsewhere is Texas. But the evidence is everywhere that hard-right social policies in red states are making this dynamic worse.
The number of applications for OB-GYN residencies is down more than 10 percent in states that have banned abortion since Dobbs. Forty-eight teachers in Hernando County, Florida, fed up with “Don’t Say Gay” and other new laws restricting what they can teach, resigned or retired at the end of the last school year. A North Carolina law confining transgender people to bathrooms in accordance with what it said on their birth certificate was projected, before it was repealed, to cost that state $3.76 billion in business investment, including the loss of a planned global operations center for PayPal in Charlotte. A survey of college faculty in four red states (Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina) about political interference in higher education found a falloff in the number of job candidates for faculty positions, and 67 percent of the respondents said they would not recommend their state to colleagues as a place to work. Indeed, nearly one-third said they were actively considering employment elsewhere.
In Oklahoma, Kate and Caroline belonged to a book group. They read “serious depressing books,” Kate said, like Evicted by Matthew Desmond and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. The book group had six people in it. Now it’s down to three, because another woman in the group moved to Washington state after Oklahoma banned transgender care for minors in May. Kate and Caroline named three additional friends who also left Oklahoma recently for political reasons.
The phrase “culture war” entered the academic lexicon in 1991 with publication of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. Hunter saw the culture wars of the late twentieth century as a continuation of American Protestants’ virulent anti-Catholicism and antisemitism during the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. Where once a Protestant majority demonized rival faiths, today a shrinking cohort of orthodox adherents to all three faiths demonizes progressive rationalists and pluralists. And, just as a century ago politicians gleefully exploited such animosity, they do so today. At the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan borrowed Hunter’s phrase and turned it into a political truncheon. “My friends,” Buchanan said,
this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War.
Buchanan’s us-versus-them philippic set the tone for congressional Republicans’ hyper-partisan opposition to Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and now Joe Biden. It also inspired the snarling us-them rhetoric of former President Donald Trump and the various Trump imitators challenging him for the 2024 presidential nomination.
The culture war moved slowly into state politics, because, at first, Republicans didn’t have much of a foothold there. From 1971 to 1994, Democrats held most governorships. That flipped in 1995, and for the next dozen years, Republicans held the majority of governorships. But Republican governors still couldn’t advance the culture-war agenda, because state legislatures remained dominated by Democrats.
That changed with the 2010 election. In a historic realignment largely unrecognized at the time, the GOP won a majority of governorships and legislative chambers. Today, Republicans control a 52 percent majority of governorships and a 57 percent majority of state legislative bodies, and in 22 states Republicans enjoy a “trifecta,” meaning they control the governorship and both legislative chambers (or, in the case of Nebraska, a unicameral legislature). At the time Dobbs was handed down, Republicans enjoyed even greater reach, with trifectas in 23 states.
The very last restraint on Republicans waging full-scale culture war—the presence of college graduates under the GOP tent—was removed by the 2016 presidential election. College graduates have always tended to be fairly liberal on social issues, but until the 1990s they were pretty reliably Republican, because college grads made more money and didn’t want to pay higher taxes. Even Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee caricatured by Republicans as an “egghead,” won only about 30 percent of college graduates in 1956. The Democrats’ egghead share crept up after that, but it wasn’t until 1992 that a Democrat, Bill Clinton, won the college vote (with a 43 percent plurality in a three-way race). Four years later, Clinton lost it to Bob Dole, and for the next two decades Joe College seesawed from one party to another. As recently as 2012, Mitt Romney eked out a 51 percent majority of college graduates.
But with the arrival of Donald Trump, college graduates left the Republican fold for the foreseeable future. Trump dropped the Republican share to 44 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2020. If Trump wins the nomination in 2024, the GOP’s share of college voters could drop below 40, and I don’t see any of Trump’s challengers for the Republican nomination doing much better. It isn’t clear they even want to, because today’s GOP sees college graduates as the enemy.
The heaviest artillery is trained on abortion rights. After Dobbs, wholesale abortion bans took effect in 14 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. All but Kentucky and Louisiana are trifecta states. In a fifteenth state, Wisconsin, uncertainty about how to interpret an 1849 statute concerning violence against a pregnant woman put abortions on hold for one year until an appeals court ruled that the statute did not apply to abortions.
Let’s call these hard-core abortion-ban states the Dobbs Fourteen. In 2020, more than 113,000 abortions were performed in the Dobbs Fourteen, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute. During the first six months of 2023, that number fell to nearly zero; in Texas, for instance, about 20 women qualified for that state’s very narrowly drawn exemptions.
The Dobbs Fourteen made it nearly impossible to get an abortion, as intended. But they simultaneously made it much more difficult for a pregnant woman to give birth, because abortion bans drove OB-GYN like Kate Arnold and Caroline Flint away.
It was hard enough for red states to hold onto their OB-GYNs even before Dobbs. A little more than one-third of all counties nationwide are “maternity care deserts,” typically in rural areas, with no hospitals or birthing centers that offer obstetric care and no individual obstetric providers (not even midwives), according to the March of Dimes. This data was collected before the Supreme Court overturned Roe. But even then, those states with the most restrictive abortion laws invested the least in maternal care, affirming former Representative Barney Frank’s memorable complaint that for conservatives “life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
Maternity care deserts are typically in rural areas, not all of which impose strict abortion restrictions. But they’re much more common in states that imposed abortion restrictions after Dobbs, representing 39 percent of all counties in those states, compared to 25 percent in states that imposed no abortion restrictions. Texas has, after California, the highest GDP of any state. Yet 46.5 percent of its counties are maternity care deserts; for some women, the nearest birthing hospital is a 70-minute drive from their home. In some states, including Oklahoma and Mississippi, the majority of counties are maternity care deserts.
Where resources are inadequate for giving birth, infant mortality tends to be high. Among the Dobbs Fourteen, all but Idaho, North Dakota, and Texas have infant-mortality rates higher than the (shockingly high) national average of 5.42 deaths per 1,000 births. In some of these states, infant mortality is substantially higher. In Mississippi, it’s 9.39 deaths per 1,000 births. In Oklahoma, it’s 7.13 deaths per 1,000 births.
It hardly surprised me when Kate, comparing their houses in Oklahoma City and Washington, said their Washington bungalow was “half the size for double the cost.” But the two physicians also took substantial cuts in pay—not quite 50 percent for Caroline, and about 25 percent for Kate. How could that be? If Washington’s cost of living is higher, shouldn’t salaries be higher, too? For most occupations, yes. But OB-GYN salaries, Kate and Caroline explained to me, vary dramatically according to local demand. Washington has plenty of OB-GYNs; the nation’s capital is too urban and too geographically small to be a maternity care desert. Oklahoma, on the other hand, suffers a desperate shortage of OB-GYNs, and therefore must pay top dollar.
Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. But the average base salary for an ob-gyn at Wayne General Hospital in Waynesboro, Mississippi, is $350,000. (I take this and the salary figures that follow from the workforce data company Glassdoor, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ information is one year out of date.) Compare Waynesboro’s largesse to the average base salary for an OB-GYN at ClearMD Health Center in Manhattan: $275,000, or 21 percent less. (Even that’s a little high for New York City, where, according to Glassdoor, average ob-gyn pay is $243,000.) In Oklahoma City, average base salary for an OB-GYN at CompHealth Physician Obstetrics and Gynecology is $325,000. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, average base salary for an OB-GYN at CompHealth Physician Obstetrics and Gynecology is $312,500. Meanwhile, average base pay for an OB-GYN in Los Angeles is $235,000.
Throwing money at OB-GYNs helps red states manage the problem, but it doesn’t fix it. One Mississippi-based OB-GYN told the nonprofit news site Mississippi Today in September that the metropolitan area around Meridian (pop. 33,816) has six obstetric providers; as recently as five years ago, it had 12 or 13.
The Milken Educator Award bestows $25,000 each year on early- to mid-career elementary and secondary schoolteachers and administrators who further “excellence in education.” The prize is bankrolled by Michael Milken, the 1980s junk-bond king turned philanthropist who, yes, served two years in prison for securities fraud and was later pardoned by Trump. Notwithstanding that colorful backstory, the Milken Educator Award is quite prestigious, and winners always get fussed over in their home states. The 60 honorees chosen in April 2022 included Tyler Hallstedt, a 35-year-old man who taught eighth grade American history in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee (pop. 42,548), a suburb 20 miles east of Nashville.
Tyler was handed the prize at a school assembly by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican. “We have some of the best schools in America in this state,” the governor told the crowd. “We have some of the best teachers in America in this state. And you have one of the best teachers in America in this school.”
Accepting his award, Tyler was a little subdued. “Teaching is a difficult job right now,” he said. “The reason I continue to do it is the relationships with my students are genuinely important to me.… Knowing that I get to see them grow and show them that I genuinely care about them, that’s what overrides the difficult and sometimes unfair parts of being a teacher.”
He could have said more, because at that point Tyler was pretty fed up with the state’s education policies. One month earlier, Lee had signed into law a bill requiring school districts to maintain lists of all teaching materials made available to students, to make these available on the school’s website, and to establish “a procedure to periodically review the library collection at each school to ensure that [it] contains materials appropriate for the age and maturity levels of the students who may access the materials.” Among the books subsequently removed from school curricula was Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
“I literally turned my bookshelf around,” Tyler told me, so that the books faced the wall. That was his silent protest. He kept the backward-facing bookshelf in his classroom all year.
For Tyler, the final straw was a dustup over a video he showed his class a few months after he collected his prize. The video was about the seventeenth-century English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. It was hosted by John Green, author of the 2012 young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. Green has engaged in some leftish activism, but the video, the third in a series called Crash Course U.S. History, isn’t notably didactic. It is, however, irreverent and funny in a manner intended to appeal to adolescents, and if you look closely you can see, on the back of Green’s laptop, a sticker that says THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. The words are borrowed from Woody Guthrie, who, feeling patriotic one day about America’s war against Hitler and Tojo, painted them onto his guitar; factory workers producing war materiel had scribbled these same words onto their lathes. Tyler received an email from a father complaining that the sticker, which you can barely see, was a call for violence. A nonmetaphorical way to use a laptop (or guitar) to kill a fascist does not spring readily to mind, but that wasn’t really the point, Tyler explained to me. “He just doesn’t like John Green.” Green’s sticker had previously drawn criticism from a Republican state legislator in New Hampshire, and Green’s 2005 young adult novel, Looking for Alaska, had been targeted by Moms for Liberty, an influential hard-right group that’s active in book-banning campaigns.
As a result of that single complaint, Tyler’s school barred him from showing his students any videos in the Crash Course series, even though he’d been using them for years. Eventually, the school backed down and permitted Tyler to show some of (but not all) the Crash Course videos; however, the damage was done. “It showed me that just one angry parent has a heckler’s veto,” Tyler said.
Tyler talked to his wife, Delana, and his adult stepson about seeking greener pastures. Delana was a teacher, too. She wasn’t particularly eager to move. But she understood what they were up against, and, at the end of the school year, all three moved to Tyler’s native Michigan, where he took up a post teaching seventh graders in Petoskey, a small resort town on Little Traverse Bay. He got a 35 percent raise, too. “I could tolerate the pay,” he told me, “but the culture wars are what finally convinced me. Things are so much better here.”
Since January 2021, 18 states have imposed restrictions on how teachers may address the subjects of race and gender, according to Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz. These include most of the Dobbs Fourteen and a few add-ons, including Florida and New Hampshire. According to a 2022 study by the RAND Corporation, legislative action not only accelerated after 2021 but also became more repressive, extending beyond the classroom to restrict professional development plans for teachers. Let’s call these teacher-harassing states the Morrison Eighteen, in honor of the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose The Bluest Eye is number three with a bullet on the American Library Association’s 2022 list of books most frequently targeted for removal. (The 1970 novel ranked eighth in 2021 and ninth in 2020.)
Taking a tour of the Morrison Eighteen, we find Texas teachers quitting at a rate that’s 25 percent above the national average. In Tennessee, the vacancy rate for all public schools is 5.5 percent, compared to a national average of 4 percent. South Carolina has teacher shortages in 17 subject areas this school year, more than any other state.
But Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida is the undisputed champ. A 2022 study led by Tuan D. Nguyen of Kansas State University found that Florida had the most teacher vacancies in the country, followed by Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama (all Morrison Eighteen states). Florida also logged the highest number of underqualified teachers.
The availability of state-level data is spotty, but teacher shortages in the Morrison Eighteen states would appear to be getting worse. According to Nguyen’s website, Florida’s teacher vacancies increased 35 percent in the school year after his study was published. Plugging in calculations from the Florida Education Association, teacher vacancies rose another 15 percent in the current school year. In Texas, the number of teacher vacancies more than doubled in the year after Nguyen’s study, and in South Carolina they increased 57 percent. (In fairness, this isn’t happening in all 18 states: Teacher shortages declined in Alabama and Mississippi.)
The culture-war capital of the United States is Tallahassee, Florida, thanks to DeSantis and his (thus far, frustrated) ambition to win the Republican nomination for president. Don’t Say Gay? Check. Don’t Say Race? Check. Pee Where Your Birth Certificate Says? Check. No Kids at Drag Shows? Check. No Preferred Pronouns in Class? Check. Go Ahead and Stuff a Permitless Glock Down Your Britches? Check. Florida also limited abortions to the first six weeks, but six weeks wasn’t quite reactionary enough to include Florida among the Dobbs Fourteen.
Frustration boiled over in Florida’s Hernando County last May, when hundreds of people showed up at a school board meeting to protest that a fifth-grade teacher named Jenna Barbee was put under investigation for showing her students Strange World, an animated Disney adventure film from 2022. Barbee’s offense was that one of the characters happened to be gay. “No one is teaching your kids to be gay,” a teacher named Alyssa Marano said at the meeting. “Sometimes, they just are gay. I have math to teach. I literally don’t have time to teach your kids to be gay.” After the meeting, 49 teachers, including Marano and Barbee, either quit or retired en masse.
Florida is also a recognized national leader in the harassment of college and university professors. Working with his majority-Republican legislature, DeSantis prohibited Florida’s public institutions of higher learning from maintaining diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, programs; he effectively ended tenure at public universities by requiring post-tenure reviews every five years; and he seized control of New College, a well-regarded public institution in Sarasota, abolishing, through a handpicked board of trustees, its gender-studies program, pushing out the school president, denying tenure to five faculty members on political grounds, and abolishing gender-neutral bathrooms.
Amid this tumult, Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, offered a place to any New College student who wished to transfer, at the same price they were paying the state of Florida. About 12 percent of the New College students applied for transfer, and in the end roughly three dozen students departed the sunny Tampa Bay area for the chilly Berkshires. About 40 faculty members left with them, and U.S. News & World Report dropped New College’s ranking from 76 to 100.
An August survey sponsored by the American Association of University Professors demonstrated low morale among faculty in the Morrison Eighteen states of Florida, Georgia, and Texas. But nowhere was morale worse than in Florida, where 47 percent said they were seeking positions in another state. “I’m a professor,” one Floridian who called himself “Brodman_area11” posted on Reddit in late September. “My university is like watching all the rats escape from the sinking ship. My department alone has lost two pediatricians, and we can’t seem to be able to recruit any qualified replacements. It’s going to be a diaspora.”
And good riddance to them, Florida Republicans would likely say. But that fails to recognize how important university communities, public and private, are in creating and sustaining a state’s economic growth. “The college,” Karin Fischer noted in a recent report by The Chronicle of Higher Education titled College as a Public Good, “has become the one institution that remains in cities and rural regions alike long after the factory shuts down or the corporate headquarters pulls up stakes.” A college isn’t an easy thing to move. And although colleges sometimes go out of business, it doesn’t happen a lot. Of the nation’s 3,600 nonprofit institutions of higher learning, only about five to 12 close each year. We lose more factories than that every day.
Consider Rochester, New York. For more than 100 years, Rochester was a company town, and the company was Kodak. Around the time of Kodak’s 1992 centennial, the company employed 60,000 people, nearly all of them in Rochester, which meant more than one in 10 people working in the Rochester metropolitan area worked at Kodak. When you included indirect employment, Kodak drove perhaps one-quarter of Rochester’s economy. Then came digital photography and bankruptcy. The company is still around, but today its Rochester payroll is approximately 1,300 employees.
Rochester is still a thriving company town, but now the company is the University of Rochester. The university employs 31,000 people, which means more than one in 15 people working in the Rochester metropolitan area work for the university, and that doesn’t even count the economic impact of its 12,000 students. The most recent unemployment figure for Rochester’s metropolitan area was 3.2 percent in September. That was lower than the national average and the average in New York state.
At this point in the discussion, someone is bound to ask: If red states are so awful, why are so many people moving there? It’s true. Between 2020 and 2022, the five states with the biggest net population growth were all red: Idaho, Montana, Florida, Utah, and South Carolina. The two biggest net population losers, meanwhile, were blue states: New York and Illinois. I just got done telling you what terrible places Oklahoma and Tennessee have become to live in. But Oklahoma and Tennessee are two of the fastest-growing states in the country. How can that be?
Part of the answer is that not many of us move at all, so broad migration patterns are not so consequential as you might think. The big migration story is that Americans have grown steadily less geographically mobile for most of the past century. As the Berkeley sociologist Claude S. Fischer pointed out two decades ago, the idea of the United States as a rootless nation, promoted by writers as varied as Vance Packard and Joan Didion, is simply wrong—a fantasy derived from the historical memory of westward expansion during the nineteenth century. Today, even immigrants tend to stay put once they arrive in the United States. During the past decade, the percentage of the entire population that moved from one state to another in any given year never rose above 2.5 percent, not even during the Covid pandemic. Even movement from one county in a given state to another is about half what it was before 1990.
When Americans do move, the motivating factor is typically pursuit of cheaper housing. In a country where decades can go by with no appreciable rise in real median income, it makes sense that if you’re going to move, it’s best to go where it’s cheaper to live. Red states almost always offer a lower cost of living. If the climate’s warm, as it is in many red states, so much the better. Conservatives like to argue that people move to red states because the taxes are lower, and it’s true, they are. But that confuses correlation with cause. In places where the cost of living is low, taxes tend to be low, too. The high-tax states are the more prosperous (invariably blue) ones where it’s more expensive to live.
But there’s an exception to the American reluctance to migrate: Joe (and Jane) College. College-educated people move a lot, especially when they’re young. Among single people, the U.S. Census Bureau found, nearly 23 percent of all college-degree holders moved to a different state between 1995 and 2000, compared to less than 10 percent of those without a college degree. Among married people, nearly 19 percent of college-degree holders moved, compared to less than 10 percent of those without a college degree. More recent data shows that, between 2001 and 2016, college graduates ages 22 to 24 were twice as likely to move to a different state as were people lacking a college degree.
The larger population may prefer to move—on those rare occasions when it does move—to a red state, but the college-educated minority, which moves much more frequently, prefers relocating to a blue state. There are 10 states that import more college graduates than they export, and all of them except Texas are blue. (I’m counting Georgia, which is one of the 10, as a blue state because it went for Joe Biden in 2020.) Indeed, the three states logging the largest net population losses overall—New York, California, and Illinois—are simultaneously logging the largest net gains of college graduates. It’s a sad sign that our prosperous places are less able than in the past—or perhaps less willing—to make room for less-prosperous migrants in search of economic opportunity. But that’s the reality.
Meanwhile, with the sole exception of Texas, red states are bleeding college graduates. It’s happening even in relatively prosperous Florida. And much as Republicans may scorn Joe (and Jane) College, they need them to deliver their babies, to teach their children, to pay taxes—college grads pay more than twice as much in taxes—and to provide a host of other services that only people with undergraduate or graduate degrees are able to provide. Red states should be welcoming Kate and Caroline and Tyler and Delana. Instead, they’re driving them away, and that’s already costing them dearly.